Okinawa’s Paradox

The Deepening Chasm Surrounding U.S. Military Base Construction

By Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]kinawa is an island where there has been conflict between the local residents and two oppressive authorities; the Japanese central government and the US military. Seventy percent of the US military facilities in Japan are jam packed on the island which accounts for only 0.6% of the whole area of the country. Okinawans are never free from the fear of the noise, accidents, and crimes of the US soldiers. However, the central government is reluctant to alleviate this situation. Furthermore, it proceeds with the construction of a new military base in the Henoko area of Nago city, without the consent of the local residents. In order to ensure security of the “peace-loving” nation, Okinawa has been made to accept an unjustifiable amount of burden.

At the beginning of 2018, Okinawa had two significant elections: mayor elections of Nanjo and Nago cities. Just before the elections, components of fighter planes of the US military fell on the playground of an elementary school and the roof of a nursery school. While one would expect the results of the elections to be critical of the central government, Okinawans gave paradoxical responses. A liberal candidate, supported by a regional party named “All Okinawa,” which opposes the construction of the new base, won in the Nanjo election. Nonetheless, a conservative candidate won over the former liberal mayor supported by “All Okinawa” in the Nago election. Ironically, Nanjo, where there are no military-related facilities, had been governed by the same conservative mayor for 12 years before the election, while Nago stayed as the centre of Okinawa’s resistance against the central government and the US military.

These elections reveal Okinawans’ intra-group contradiction about how to deal with the oppressive authorities. Okinawans are fluctuating between “idealism,” which resists the maintenance and enlargement of the US military facilities, and “realism,” which acknowledges the limitations on such resistance. I interviewed three people working in Okinawa to analyse the self-contradictory mindset of Okinawans.


Mr. Chobin Zukeran, the newly elected liberal mayor of Nanjo city and a former member of the House of Representatives admitted that the US military issue was not the main topic of his election. He said his victory represents the citizens’ dissatisfaction with the opaque administration of his former conservative mayor. However, he claimed that his victory should have been the favourable wind for the “All Okinawa.” He  had been to Nago several times to support the liberal candidate and felt that the citizens recognised the unity between the candidate and himself.

Mr. Zukeran said the Nago election did not indicate the citizens’ acceptance of the new base. According to the poll by the Asahi Shimbun, one of the major newspapers in Japan, 63% of the citizens opposed the construction, while only 20% were in favour. However, he admitted that the citizens prioritised economic issues. He inferred that they had regarded the issue of the base as “a problem beyond the reach of the citizens.” Although the former conservative mayor stayed in power for eight years, the central government carried out the construction resolutely. Accordingly, Mr. Zukeran claimed, the citizens realised their inability to counter the government and preferred the conservative candidate who focused on the economic growth of the city. During the election, the conservative candidate avoided directly referring to the new base. He delegated the issue to the decision of national politics and judiciary, self-limiting the scope of the city government. On the other hand, Mr. Zukeran inferred Okinawans’ ongoing displeasure with the mainlanders. According to him, many mainlanders visited Nago during the election and argued that the citizens must resist the new base since Okinawa is the final stronghold against the militarisation of Japan. Although they expressed their hope that Japan would remain a peace-loving country, Okinawans could not easily accept such irresponsible claims. Most of the mainlanders had never thought of how they could alleviate the suffering of Okinawans. Such attitude of the mainlanders symbolises the asymmetrical relationship between Okinawa and the oppressive mainland. Okinawans’ antipathy toward the mainlanders’ movement might have encouraged them to prioritise their own economic development.

Mr. Mitsuo Gima, a member of the House of Councillors and belongs to Nippon Ishin no Kai, a relatively conservative party, explained the victory of the conservative candidate in Nago as the “exhausted” citizens’ call for economic development. According to him, the conflict between the city and the central government had been detrimental to the local economy. Opposing the construction of the new base means refusing the subsidies from the central government, which amount to 3.6 billion JPY (approximately 34 million USD). Therefore, Gima argued, due to the administration of the former mayor, Nago had failed to become the centre of the northern Okinawa economy. Although nobody in Okinawa supports the military bases, he said, it was impossible to abolish all the bases immediately. Unconditional opposition shuts all the possible ways of negotiation and never brings an advantageous outcome to Okinawa. His argument reveals a trade-off between realism and idealism, which is slyly designed by the central government. Indeed, the issue of the bases violates Okinawan’s fundamental human rights, which should be ensured unconditionally. However, due to the government’s subsidisation, Okinawans are forced to choose between economic growth and their right to live safely and peacefully. Mr. Gima conceded that Okinawan politics came always with a paradox between an idealistic view that economy is nothing insofar as people’s lives are threatened, and a realistic claim that economic growth is indispensable. Accordingly, he added, despite the defeat, the idealistic view would never perish and that by repeating the change of government, Okinawans could maintain the balance of politics. Politics is a tool that reconciles the two conflicting ideologies and achieve the “best possible” outcome for Okinawa.

On the other hand, Mr. Masaie Ishihara, a professor emeritus at Okinawa International University, specialising in the Battle of Okinawa and the post-war peace movement in Okinawa, regarded the Nago election as the defeat of politics to the oppression of the central government. Unlike Mr. Gima, who saw the election as a representation of the desire of the citizens, Mr. Ishihara doubted that the result reflected the citizens’ free will. He attributed the main reason of the victory of the conservative candidate to Komeito’s (a political party in Japan) support. In the election four years ago, Komeito admitted the free voting of its supporters. However, in the election this year, Komeito officially supported the conservative candidate since the party forms a coalition government with the LDP. Mr. Ishihara argued that although many of Okinawan supporters of Komeito were against the new base, they were forced to vote for the conservative candidate. The election was a miniature of national politics, and the opinions of the local residents were distorted by the mainland politics. Therefore, Mr. Ishihara argued, it is inappropriate to determine an issue that relates to the life and safety of the people by election. Rather, only the mass movement can resist the oppression. Unlike Mr. Zukeran, who pointed out the downside of the mainland activists, Mr. Ishihara argued the importance of the participation and initiative of the mainlanders. According to him, Okinawans cannot explicitly oppose the military bases since they know that the bases are an indispensable part of their lives (for instance, some Okinawans have relatives working at the bases). The mainlanders can initiate and lead movements without being concerned with such complex relationship to the bases. Therefore, Okinawans and the mainlanders must cooperate with a cosmopolitan viewpoint.

Mr. Ishihara and Mr. Gima do not contradict each other; rather, they both argue for the coexistence of realistic politics and idealistic civic movement. Since politics must actually improve the people’s lives, it needs to negotiate with the central government, making compromises and realistic decisions. However, once the citizens give up movements outside politics, nothing can resist the oppressive government. Therefore, regardless of the political situation, the citizens must continue to combat the injustice imposed upon them.

During the interviews, all the interviewees mentioned the story of how Okinawa was characterised by its continual submission to Japan since the seventeenth century. Even today, they cannot freely determine the issue that affects their safety, trapped in a paradox between realism and idealism. Since the military bases have been interwoven into the people’s lives, the intervention by the mainlanders may be necessary. However, the mainlanders must not impose their own idealism. They should acknowledge their oppressiveness, which imposes burdens of bases exclusively on Okinawa and contributes to the authoritarian system that forces Okinawa to be silent for the sake of economic development. The mainlanders need to contemplate on why Okinawans fluctuate between idealism and realism, and self-criticise regarding their oppressions against Okinawa.


Keigo Nishio ’21 is in Branford College. Contact him at